Hands-on Learning Projects Increase Student Engagement at Banner

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin


Educational research shows that children of all ages learn best by doing. While hands-on learning has always been a part of the curriculum for subjects such as Art, Science, and Music, it can be applied to almost any subject in any area. Incorporating hands-on learning can often be a challenge for public schools that operate under tight budgets and whose teachers may have less freedom in developing curriculum. Increasing pressure to meet Common Core standards and raise National test scores in the public schools has led to the near demise of hands-on or experiential learning in the classroom.  Many public schools have been forced to cut programs that utilize hands-on learning and, as a result, there has been a steady decline in the amount of time students spend working on hands-on projects. Instead, they complete worksheets, are only taught the material they need to know to pass the test, and knowledge is acquired mainly through drill and practice and memorization.

Hands-on learning is touted as a key factor in developing a lifelong love of learning in children and greater academic success.  This approach not only increases engagement and retention while encouraging students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills but also results in increased self-confidence in their accomplishments in the following ways:

  • Students are more engaged when they are active participants in the learning process.
  • Students have a greater understanding of abstract concepts when they are asked to apply those concepts in a concrete way.
  • Students who benefit from a hands-on approach, not only have to make decisions as they learn but at times follow a multi-step process (ex. Writing an essay, completing a science experiment) which encourages key skills that have real-world applications.
  • Many students, especially older elementary and middle school students, want to know: When will I use this in my life? Why does it matter? Experiential learning provides answers to these questions.

Here at Banner, smaller class sizes and greater freedom allow our teachers the time to incorporate these opportunities into our STEAM-based curriculum on a regular basis: 

Middle School

  • Students in Ms. Stacy Ukishima’s social studies classes are engaged in hands-on learning projects throughout the year: “I use hands-on learning in history all of the time. It not only helps to engage the students, but they remember those experiences long after they are done studying the material in class. For example, in 6th grade this year, I decorated my room in brown paper – complete with bats and stalactites – and students used headlamps and flashlights to cave paint as hominids did in the past. They also studied real animal bones and various “artifacts” to learn how archaeologists are similar to detectives. Some sixth graders wrote and performed songs about the Mesopotamian empires, and the entire class created brochures in computer class about them (integrating technology education with history). 
  • In seventh grade, students recently participated in a feudalism simulation where they lived on manors protected by knights. The knights had to defend the manors and the monarch. This simulation helped students understand the roles of the different groups; how the land was distributed during feudalism; and manor life. They designed and built castles with drawbridges and turrets out of recyclable materials. Another hands-on learning activity involved researching heraldry and designing a personalized coat of arms.
  • In eighth grade, students assumed the role of a Founding Father and participated in a Constitutional Convention, in a “candlelit” room where they used “quill pens” to sign our Constitution. They learned about the Bill of Rights and had to take photographs of examples of our Five Freedoms out in the community. We are planning a field trip to the Underground Railroad Experience Trail in Sandy Spring soon so they can learn more about how these secret routes and networks helped slaves escape to the North.
  • In fifth grade, Ms. Bridget Carver’s students spend several weeks studying the cultural regions of Native Americans. Ms. Andrea Williams, our Pre-K -8 Art Teacher, and Ms. Carver collaborate on several projects such as creating Inuit Whale art, totem animals, and dream catchers, to name a few. In class, students make 3D paper pueblos, a winter count, and wampum.

Primary School

  • Students in Ms. Stephanie Uzarowksi’s fourth-grade class use salt dough to create 3-D land maps of Maryland. First, they cut out the shape of the state and trace it onto an aluminum tray. Then they form the salt dough into the shape of the state, molding it to form mountainous regions and other natural landmarks. When the dough dries out and hardens, they paint each region of the state a different color. Blue represents the Chesapeake River and the Atlantic Ocean, red represents the Piedmont Plateau, green represents the Appalachian Mountains, and yellow represents the Atlantic Coastal Plains. 
  • Pat McIntosh, our first-grade teacher, uses hands-on activities and experiential learning to teach both math and writing. She says: “When 1st-graders begin a new math concept such as addition or subtraction or even working with solid shapes, I always start out using manipulatives. Sometimes it is cubes or maybe the shapes themselves like spheres, cubes, etc. Using concrete items always helps them learn their math facts. The same for writing. At this age, we draw pictures first to help them know what to write. Yesterday, we went on a field trip to Jumbo’s Pumpkin Farm. Today we started out by drawing what we see. When the students get to the writing portion, they can look at the picture to give them inspiration.”
  • In Ms. Tracy Gardner’s primary science classes, students complete hands-on projects related to physics and engineering:
    • Fourth graders conduct a lab to investigate and compare the energy of different sized objects. They use a balance scale to determine the weight of a golf ball and a marble. Then they drop each ball into a container of sand from the same height. They use a ruler to measure the width and depth of the crater created by each. These observations allow them to see the transfer of energy from each object. After analyzing their data, they are able to determine if it supports their hypothesis about whether the larger or smaller object uses more energy.
    • Third graders investigate how the height of a ramp affects the energy of an object in motion as it moves down the ramp. They use their materials (tape, books, pool noodles) to create a ramp a marble could travel down. Then they measure the height of their ramp with a yardstick and record the time it takes the marble to travel using a stopwatch. They repeat this process with two additional heights for their ramp. Finally, they record their data in a chart to construct an explanation about the relationship between a moving object’s initial height above the ground and its energy exerted.
    • Second -graders are working on describing and classifying different materials to determine which materials have the properties best suited for an intended purpose. They were given the task to make a model dam that stops the flow of water. As a team, they considered their materials of craft sticks, modeling clay and pipe cleaners to form a plan on how to build their dam. They tested their designs by building them in a bin and watching as the water was poured on one side. If the water flowed to the other side, they discussed what changes they could make to improve their design. If the water was successfully stopped, they discussed which properties and materials were the best options for their purpose of building a dam.


  • Our youngest students engage in hands-on learning through sensory integration. Preschool teacher Ms. Amanda Pankratz says, “In preschool, students are touching, hearing, smelling and looking to learn new information. Sensory activities allow the children to make connections to prior knowledge, as well as allowing new connections to be made.  Hands-on learning makes children more aware of the world around them, how things affect each other, and more curious about things they don’t know.”


Before children begin formal schooling, parents have more control over how their children learn.  At this stage, parents can provide a strong foundation for learning by engaging their child in hands-on activities such as building with blocks, even helping with simple household chores that challenge their child to learn by doing.

When a child enters a nursery program, preschool, kindergarten, or grade school—parents who prioritize hands-on education should look for a school that shares this priority. In addition to evaluating the school’s curriculum and asking questions during the admissions process, parents should also keep an eye out for schools that embrace a constructivist approach to learning. Schools that offer STEM or STEAM programs, maker education, or other programs that emphasize 21st-century learning skills are excellent options for the parent who values a hands-on approach.

Tags: , , ,
Posted on:   |     |   No Comments

Leave a Reply